Monday, August 18, 2008

Theatrical Tourism

New York theater is unlike any other; it is an industry. Where else do people travel just to attend productions? Very few – Stratford, Ontario and the West End in London to give some examples. They are not easy theaters to get into either. Ticket prices ranges from $60 for a back row balcony seat to above $125 for floor seats. But people pay the prices because these are shows that they want to see.

And the demand extends beyond the theatre. Street vendors sell framed show post cards. There are souvenir shops named “The Phantom of Broadway;” I wonder where they got their names. There are ticket brokers all around Time Square that are similar to the ticket brokers in Wrigleyville selling Cubs tickets. Indeed the amount of money and promotions floating around would be more akin to that surrounding a major league sporting event as opposed to any cultural event in these United States.

But is Art as product a bad thing?

People want to consume this live performance. They want to be a part of the magic of Broadway. There are hundreds of theaters across the country that wish that they could bottle that mass appeal and inject it into their companies. Many argue that Broadway will only produce big budget musicals that are more entertainment than thought provoking. For the most part that is true; Disney has ascended on the Great White Way and made it its own. However, just think of how many of our nation’s children have been introduced to the theater because of shows like The Lion King, Beauty and the Beast, or (god forbid) Cats. And these shows do not run for years and years because they aren’t any good. They run because there is something in the story that people return to time and time again. And what about plays like Thurgood, Doubt, or August: Osage County. They have had a significant impact on Broadway in recent years.

The question then becomes, how does the rest of the nation tap into this excitement? Theater is not dead but it is a necessary and viable form of entertainment. How do we make it something that people want to go see? Yes, there are the national tours of Broadway musicals that help with this, but theatre cannot simply be that. The National New Play Network is working hard to establish a second-stage, if you will, for premiering new works on a national level. But how do we duplicate the market like New York City where theatre spills onto the streets – both in merchandise and appeal? How do we make theatre into a for-profit business like the movies, professional sports, or rock concerts?

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